International Writers Magazine: America's Oldest Brewery
Eric D. Lehman
road to Yuengling Brewery winds through some strange, backwoods
country: heaps of churches, porno shops, and prefab houses, set
on the small, steep hills, all facing the road, so that each looks
into anothers backyard. Down the road is the smoking turf
of Centralia, where coal mines were accidentally set on fire fifty
years ago and will burn for hundreds of years to come. A dreary
sky broods behind dark clouds and throws an occasional spatter
of rain at us. The macadam is gray. The journey is holy. Mecca.
Jerusalem. Lhasa. Pottsville, Pennsylvania.
is built on steep hills and the car is forced to crawl up through a
narrow rowhouse street. The Brewery looms above the abandoned coal-town
like a brick troll, amber walls looking dark and old, and since this
is Americas Oldest Brewery, the materials are no doubt the originals.
Three friends and I walk around the complex, finding a dark blue sign
with white lettering that proclaims this a national historic landmark.
We locate the entrance that says tours and gift shop, but leads into
a gray, concrete room with piles of boards in the corner, causing confusion.
Undaunted, our group of four thirsty travelers explores and heads through
a doorway into another similar room, where the shiny bottom of a huge
vat pokes through the ceiling. Up a dirty, narrow staircase and finally
a few people milling around signal that the destination is near.
The gift shop is cheap and extensive, including a museum that wraps
around the back, chronicling the rise of the brewery and the Yuengling
family. Jared, an aspiring screenwriter, calls attention to an antique
bunghole. My other friends wander around and decide what theyre
going to buy before the tour starts: gray T-shirts, tall Lager mugs
and Stout glasses, and posters with smoking dogs. Finally, our tickets
are called and we find the tour packed on a Tuesday at 1:00. Thirty
people cram through the gray concrete hallways in knots. The middle-aged,
female tour guide asks who has been here before and several people answer
affirmatively, obviously friendly local beer hounds after the free beer
at the end of the tour.
In the double-level brewing chambers a mural sweeps across one wall
and a stained glass window squares itself in the ceiling. These contrast
with the grimy appearance of the floor, the railings, and the brewmaster.
The huge stainless steel vats look spotless, however. Workers clean
them at the end of every day. The crusty guide explains that the vats
used to be copper and the glare was so bad from the ceiling window that
the colored glass was installed. Someone makes a joke about this being
a church and no one laughs.
The smell is a cross between baking bread and a kitchen floor after
a keg party. "Smells like feesh," notes Johann, an astrophysicist
and lifelong friend. I cant say Ive had the same kind of
relationship with beer. I hated it until my early twenties, balking
at the bitter, hoppy tang. I mention this failure and my brother Andy
calls me an idiot for sidelining beer in any way. Outside now, the group
passes Dick Yuengling, the tie and khaki owner of this fine establishment,
talking to some of the greasy truck drivers. Giant white tractor trailers
with the brewery insignia creep into docking bays, cramped by the jumble
of buildings and cracked alleys.
The bottle shop is obscured by steam pockets and huge, unfathomable
machinery. We watch the beer fill the green bottles at amazing speed,
labels being glued on for the consumers, sturdy cardboard boxes capturing
the bottles for delivery. The place where the kegs are filled is inaccessible,
unfortunately. The silver tubs make a home deep in the hillside, where
over a century ago, Yuengling dug huge tunnels into the steep slope,
caverns where the temperature never rises. Fragments of green glass
make the floor of the shop a concrete maze. The sign states that safety
glasses are mandatory, but the malty hops herders wear only overalls
and dirty baseball caps.
Finally, we are led into a narrow, wood-paneled chamber that houses
a bar with several taps. We sit down on an oak bench and check out the
ancient photos and awards that line the walls. Everyone is given the
choice to taste any of the Yuengling brews: Lager, Black and tan, Premium,
Light, Lord Chesterfield Ale, and the number one Porter in the world.
The beer tastes fresh and smooth like malted spring air. We all comment
on the wonderful flavors and textures, praising the process we had so
Jared asks if the brewery will expand in the future and were told
that plans are already in the works. What about national distribution?
Local demand is probably too great, says the guide. Everyone loves the
taste. Amazing how something as strange and sad as alcohol can unite
so many people. It is hard enough to agree on politics, philosophy,
television programs. With the choices of beer, youd think more
arguments would break out, and of course they sometimes do. But here,
in this coalmine corner of North America, in a two hundred mile radius
from this spot, Yuengling is agreed upon. Perhaps if more people drank
it in this fragmented world, they would not disagree on so much else.
My three friends and I leave and head back into our home province of
Berks County, to the Wild Wing Café at the Reading Airport. We
all joke and talk reverently about the experience, mentioning other
friends we want to bring here, talking about buying sweet pitchers of
Lager at Wild Wings. We unite through beer. The buffalo wings at the
café are another matter, and soon we will disagree on the best
flavors and spice intensities. But that doesnt matter, because
they have all you can eat.
© Eric D Lehman May 2006
Eric teaches at Bridgeport University and is a constant traveler.
Colors of Cusco
Eric D Lehman in Peru
Eric D Lehman
and Political Freedom
Eric D Lehman
all rights reserved - all comments are the writers' own responsibiltiy
- no liability accepted by hackwriters.com or affiliates.